Medford has lost an opportunity to create residential use in downtown with the announcement of the agreement to develop the Evergreen project for retail and office use exclusively.
When the Evergreen project was designed, after considerable input by the public, it was represented to all that the use would have a residential component. The entire south side would house residential use and it was to be that way so that the parking would be free for use by the surrounding area. That was to be parking for employees and the public, as the mixed use would have a complementary use of the parking.
While there was an attempt to create such units, they were required by MURA to be expensive luxury units that did not reflect the market demand. The city could have tried to encourage conventional units for loft, one-bedroom and two-bedroom market rent units. Instead they chose to support with millions in dollars to use the project for commercial use. As a result, the parking that was to be used for residential will now be taken up by office use.
A healthy downtown, established in goals for the creation of MURA, involves a thriving retail/service component, an office component and a residential component. All efforts have been directed, successfully I might add, at the first two and, as a result, not one residential unit has been created in more than 20 years.
Now we can have an opportunity to help create the residential component by establishing adoptive reuse policies to encourage conversion of older commercial upstairs in our downtown. Many other communities have done so, with relaxed code requirements and reduced or eliminated system development charges to encourage conversion of buildings or new construction for residential units needed for a healthy downtown.
It is encouraging that the City Council is looking at establishing some low-income housing. Although it is not what the council originally was trying for — luxury condos — at least it is a step toward more residential use in our downtown. Perhaps this will help to encourage other residential construction in our core.
New construction in The Commons can help create these needed units. If the Medford Urban Renewal Agency wants to leave with a helping hand to finish one of the major goals to create a thriving downtown, then do so now.
The vacancy rate for residential in downtown has been zero for many years, attesting to the demand. Any time a unit opens up, it is quickly grabbed. Aside from some fringe housing and the two hotel conversions that have existed, the only residential is limited to less than 20 units. If you take out the units operated by the ARC, which is a good use for the building and serves the public well, then the total count is less than 10 places to live in our downtown.
That is right. I said 10 places to live and no more for office workers, students, retirees and the many others that could help our downtown become what we envisioned those many years ago.
Policies of government have long been used to encourage positive community results. Now is the time to look at this as an opportunity to help make our downtown rich with adoptive reuse and creation of market opportunities. Let us finish up MURA's history with a long-lasting solution to this need. The cost is so little and the benefits will be felt for generations.
Scott Henselman is the broker/owner of Henselman Realty & Management. He served as chairman of the ad-hoc committee to form the Medford Urban Renewal Agency and is a downtown supporter.